Benjamin Banneker, born from slavery, was an astronomer, mathematician, and most importantly an author. He wrote to Thomas Jefferson, one of the framers of the Declaration of Independence and then Secretary of State to President George Washington. Banneker was brave in writing Jefferson in that he used many different rhetorical strategies such as biblical allusions, repetition, and emotional diction in order to truly connect and convey the message to the American people.
Banneker puts Jefferson’s ethics and morals to question by initially making many biblical allusions to attack his pro-slavery stance. He goes on to say that while Jefferson is “fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father” to all of man, Jefferson himself contradicts and “counteracts his mercies” by allowing such an oppressive act to continue. The use of religion in this argument not only gave Banneker a way to scorn and ridicule Jefferson’s acts but it also allows him to do so without tarnishing his polished virtue and character. He established this under the power of Gods judgment rather than just Banneker himself. Through the perfect integration of biblical allusions, Banneker was able to greatly increase the magnitude of the situation because he’s essentially shedding light on the sins of Jefferson’s past.
Although Banneker had to be frustrated with the topic of slavery, he maintained a very polite disposition throughout the letter. He continually references Jefferson as “Sir” and “you” to be polite as well as addressing Jefferson in a much more personal manner. He refers to Jefferson as “Sir” six times in the letter, with at least one instance in every paragraph. While Banneker is condemning the actions of Jefferson, he still maintains the utmost respect for him and the political office that he holds. Banneker purposefully maintained this air of modesty and dignity to destroy Jefferson’s prior assertion that race makes a person inferior. Banneker was smart to want to reason with, and not fully attack Jefferson on this issue because how could he justify being mad at someone who clearly holds Jefferson’s name with very high esteem.
His argument against slavery was also riddled with many examples of emotional diction used to depict the true impact of slavery. Banneker refers to slavery as being a “criminal act which you professedly detested to others with respect to yourselves”. This crime that Jefferson has committed has long gone unchecked in the eyes of Banneker. The “cruel oppression” that is slavery was a major crime against humanity. These powerful words represent the plight of slavery as well as the horrendous lives that those affected must endure daily. He goes on to strengthen his argument further making many connections as to how the actions of Jefferson have affected him on a very personal level. He effectively turned the population of slaves from being mere property into real human beings by championing a policy of kindness towards all of mankind.
A modest hero, Benjamin Banneker, was a revolutionary figure in American history and the fight against slavery. His letter to Thomas Jefferson is likely the match that lit the fire under the anti-slavery movement. His mild-mannered approach politely condemned Jefferson’s actions all while spreading awareness of the true atrocities of slavery and oppression.
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